Ryan Rafaty
July 29, 2015

long-termism > noun

[mass noun] the practice of making decisions with a view towards long-term objectives or consequences.[i]

Few vices of contemporary life have been more publicly derided yet  institutionally persistent than short-term thinking. ‘Short-termism’ has  become a dirty word, and it does not take a great deal of retrospection  to understand why.

Deregulatory initiatives championed by Wall Street investment banks  enabled the blithe risk-taking that, by 2007, precipitated the global  financial crisis. After multi-trillion-dollar bank bailouts and tepid  efforts at reform, the global financial sector remains vulnerable  to the same destructive behavior that periodically stokes up systemic  banking crises. Unsustainable trade imbalances between Northern and  Southern European states fueled the borrowing that led to the Greek debt  crisis, which is being prolonged by myopic, creditor-imposed fiscal  austerity, with repercussions to be felt for generations to come. At the  same time, a quarterly earnings obsession and legal requirement to  maximize ‘shareholder value’ have led management at corporations like  ExxonMobil and Gazprom to adopt a policy of postponing as long as  possible the global energy transition away from fossil fuels,  essentially ‘greenwashing’ their positions on climate change risks.  President Obama, in a recent interview with Vox,  spoke regretfully of the consequences of a system of corporate  governance with “international capital that is demanding maximizing  short-term profits”. Add to these systemic financial problems the  incredulity and levity with which humankind has so far dealt with  looming risks of astronomical and earth-based natural calamities,  resource depletion, nuclear war, terrorism, totalitarianism, advanced  nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, and it becomes evident that  short-termism has truly catastrophic potential.[ii]

There is a long history of Cassandra-ism that has caused some people  to be skeptical of long-term prognoses, because they turned out to be  wrong—most recently and influentially, the nuclear winter predictions  culminating in the early 1980s. And yet it would appear now, more than  ever, important to take into account a variety of dire possibilities,  because there are real medium- and long-term dangers today that did not  exist in the past. The nature of the ‘long-term’ view has changed; as  the title of Jörg Friedrich’s recent book on the risks of climate change and future energy scarcity suggests, “The future is not what it used to be”.

To be effective, national public policy initiatives on long run  issues from financial reform and debt restructuring to climate change  mitigation and disarmament all require strategic social and economic  planning sustained over decades, surviving the vicissitudes of party  competition and the succession of political leadership. Although  politicians do not have quarterly earning reports, their purview does  not extend much further than the next election. Politicians in the  Western democracies spend much of their time—often half in the U.S. and a  quarter in Europe—“dialing for dollars”  to run campaigns and retain power. Under these circumstances, national  dialogue and legislation on long run policy issues is rare or quickly  embroiled in political budget battles amid the grandstanding and  disinformation of quadrennial, lobbying-infused election cycles and  ephemeral, spectacle-driven news media cycles. There are a few  exceptions, of course, but by and large, short-termism reigns in the  political arena.

In response to the juggernaut of short-termism in politics and  corporate governance, a sophisticated critique of what Cicero once  called “the tyranny of the present’” is germinating in social science  departments. Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage opened their History Manifesto,  which appeared online in October 2014 and has stirred controversy in  the historical profession, with the indictment that “a spectre is  haunting our time: the spectre of the short term”. Political scientist  Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay, political theorist John Dunn’s Breaking Democracy’s Spell, political theorist David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap, and economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century  have also received extraordinary attention in their respective  disciplines and become topics of public debate. What unites these  scholars is a shared belief that the near future appears ominous and  that avoiding the worst perils this century can only happen with a shift  in emphasis towards the longue durée.

But beyond refocusing academia’s attention on long-term historical  processes, they are also pleas to engage in policymaking based on some  kind of long run perspective. Admonishing the Eurogroup’s handling of  Greek debt negotiations, Piketty urges in an interview with Die Zeit,  “at some point people need to look toward the future … Europe was  founded on debt forgiveness and investment in the future”. Runciman  writes that“the successes of democracy over the past hundred years have  not resulted in more mature, far-sighted, and self-aware democratic  societies”, but instead “democratic politics is as childish and petulant  as it has ever been: we squabble, we moan, we despair”.[iii]  What might help us overcome “the dilemmas of collective action and our  deep-seated preferences for short-term comfort and convenience over  long-term security and flourishing”, Dunn writes, “is a somewhat better  apprehension of the magnitude of the risks we are choosing to run and  the brevity of the time scale over which we have thus far chosen to run  them”.[iv]  Guldi, Armitage, Fukuyama, Dunn, Runciman, and Piketty all insist that  long-term thinking is necessary to avert the repetition of past mistakes  or the unwitting creation of new ones.

The budding critique of short-termism extends to the institutional level. Oxford University’s Martin Commission for Future Generations  was formed “to address the growing short-term preoccupations of modern  politics and business and identify ways of overcoming today’s gridlock  in key international organizations”. The slightly more foreboding Centre for the Study of Existential Risk  at Cambridge University was founded for “the study and mitigation of  risks that could lead to human extinction”, in order to ensure “that our  own species has a long-term future”. Some political bodies have joined  the chorus: the Finnish parliament created the Committee for the Future,  tasked with generating “active and initiative-generating dialogue with  the Government on major future problems and means of solving them”,  while Hungary’s Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations  has quasi-judicial power to strike down legislation that harms  “citizens’ right to a healthy environment”. There have also been ongoing  discussions about whether there should be a High Commissioner for  Future Generations at the United Nations.

The concerns of these scholars, academic institutions, and  governments extend beyond the ephemera of political headlines or the  waxing and waning of commercial markets. They share in common a belief  that our generation may be unwittingly passing on to posterity a planet  more unequal and inequitable, or worse, pillaged and plundered.


Modern denunciations of short-termism and exhortations to take a  longer-term view are not entirely novel, but a vestige of the past.  Concern about the plight of posterity is documented as early as the  fragments of the Athenian statesman Solon from the 6th century BC (see  Daniel Unruh’s recent essay on Solon in the pages of King’s Review).  It was a common thought in the writings of Solon, Herodotus, and  Aristotle, that even after death, the misfortunes or indignities of  one’s children or grandchildren can ruin one’s reputation, and thus  one’s “life”. “Though a person may have lived a blessed life into his  old age and died accordingly”, Aristotle writes in Nicomachean Ethics,

many reverses may happen in connection with his  descendants. It would indeed be odd if the dead person also were to  share in these vicissitudes, and be sometimes happy, sometimes wretched.  But it would also be odd if the fortunes of descendants had no effect  on their ancestors for any time at all.[v]

For many Ancient Athenians, the prospect of falling into disrepute was reason enough to worry about the fate of one’s progeny.

Innervated by similar concerns after decades of war-making, the Constitution of the Iroquois  Native Americans urged the people of the confederacy to think and plan  with a view towards how present decisions will impact descendants seven  generations into the future. “Cast not over your shoulder behind you  the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any  error or wrong you may do”, the Constitution advises, but “look and  listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not  only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces  are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future  Nation”. For the Iroquois, long-termism was not a fleeting concern, but  an integral, inescapable facet of the day-to-day. “We are together  facing a very grim future […] We have watched within our own nations and  territories the exploitation of not only the people but the resources  without regard for the seventh generation to come”, writes Oren Lyons,  Chief of the Onondaga Nation, one of the six Iroquois Nations. And in  confronting this history,“we are looking ahead, as is one of the first  mandates given to us as chiefs, to make sure every decision we make  relates to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to  come”.[vi]  Sentinels of future generations, the Iroquois derived strength and  vivacity from their radically extended purview. Long-termism was not a  part-time preoccupation of political leaders, but a paradigm with which  to mold daily decisions with a view towards intergenerational equity.

The Iroquois mandate to think and plan seven generations ahead is a  powerful, emphatic ideal. But in practice, wherever such behavior is not  the norm, thinking more than a century ahead can be unsettling, putting  one out-of-step with the acquiescence of the day-to-day, with the  short-termism endemic to political and financial institutions. As  cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees writes in the New Statesman,  looking ahead at risks and planning for “trends beyond 2050” should  make us feel “anxious”. What would it mean to be innervated by the  thought of the struggles of our descendants living in 150 years, by  which time the depletion of finite, fossil energy resources and the  breaching of ecological limits could be irreversible, or by which time  the brinkmanship and bellicosity of inveterate war-making may prove  ultimately fatal to civilization? Or, to put it in the form of concrete  directives: what would it mean to, within the next two decades, finance  the next generation of energy and transport infrastructure, to quell the  nuisance of congestion, emissions, pollution, and energy insecurity for  the benefit of our descendants, or for sake of our reputation? To  pursue expeditious disarmament and peace-making efforts—beyond the  conveniently ignored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—for sake of human  survival?

That social and economic planning with intergenerational foresight is  a rarity in most parts of the world today, at the very moment when  there is a ubiquitous surge in criticism of short-termism, should be  puzzling. It should prompt some rather difficult questions about what  kind of ‘long-termism’ we are after. How far ahead should humankind  think and plan—decades, centuries, millennia—and on whose behalf? Should  our time horizon depend on the particular social issue in question—e.g.  the issue of national debt, like climate change, may require thinking  ahead 150 years, whereas the issue of safely storing radioactive nuclear  waste or preventing a fatal earth-asteroid collision requires thinking  ahead tens of thousands of years. How do we distinguish genuine long run  concern from sanctimonious posturing? And how much long-termism do we  really need, if many instances of human achievement that we  retrospectively celebrate as examples of forward-thinking actually arose  from short-term pressures and concerns?

It quickly becomes apparent that pleas for ‘the long term’ as an  antidote to ‘the short term’ are not as clear-cut as they may seem.


In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, the protagonist Alvy Singer, as a  young boy, is taken to the doctor by his distressed mother, who appeals  to the doctor for help because Alvy won’t do his homework anymore.  “What’s the point?”, Alvy responds forlornly, “the universe is  expanding. The universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, some day  it will break apart and that will mean the end of everything”.

Long-termism, when taken to its logical extreme, can be debilitating.  But when used in the right measure, on the right time scale, and for  the right objectives, the sobriety of long-term thinking is vital to the  development of democracy and civilization. What form such  ‘long-termism’ should take, and with whose objectives or consequences in  mind, are questions I pose but cannot hope to answer here. I claim only  that the current proliferation of intergenerational thinking has a  wealth of historical precedents to draw upon, and that without a  conversation with that history, without the imposition of the  unapologetic long view—however far-off or preposterous to public  sensibilities of the time—the vainglory of each successive generation  will in the final analysis be exposed for what it is: a relic of  humanity’s exceedingly limited foresight and extraordinary capacity for  self-deception.


[I] Oxford Dictionary Of English, 2010, P. 1043.

[Ii] See, For Example: Nick Bostrom And Milan M. Cirkovic (Editors), Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford University Press, 2011.

[Iii] David Runciman, The Confidence Trap, 2014, Princeton University Press, Preface, Xv.

[Iv] John Dunn, Breaking Democracy’s Spell, Yale University Press, 2014, P. 146.

[V] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2000, Pp. 16-17.

[Vi] Christopher Vecsey And Robert W. Venables (Editors). American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues In Native American History. Syracuse University Press, 1980, P. 173.

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Ryan Rafaty